How to Do the Helen WoD: Goal Times, Tips, and Safety

A CrossFit WoD of running, kettlebell swings, and kipping pull-ups

Three women (left) and one man (right) swing kettlebells overhead in a CrossFit gym
Getty Images.

Helen is one of the “Girls” workouts, a series of WoDs developed by CrossFit founder Greg Glassman to test the strength, speed, endurance, and agility of CrossFit athletes. The Girls WoDs are named in the way the National Weather Service names storms because they will leave you feeling like you've been hit by a hurricane.

Helen starts with a 400-meter run followed by kettlebell swings and kipping pull-ups. This tough workout should be completed periodically, such as every six months or once a year, as a benchmark to measure your fitness progress.

How to do the Helen WoD

Score: Helen is scored “for time,” which means you complete the workout as quickly as possible.

Equipment Needed: Kettlebell, pull-up bar or rig, space to run 400 meters.

Level: Helen is an intermediate workout, but features movements with plenty of scaling options for beginners.  

Benefits

Because of its varied movements, Helen can be a confusing workout in terms of stimulus. Some athletes view it as a full-out sprint while others view it as a fast but moderate effort. No matter how you look at it, you can reap these benefits. 

Speed 

A good Helen score requires a fast 400-meter run. Anywhere from 90 seconds to two minutes is great, and Helen will test your ability to maintain that speed for three intervals with little rest in between. 

Endurance

Transitioning from a quarter-mile run to a weightlifting movement and a gymnastics movement—and then back to another run—is no easy feat. Helen will test your cardiovascular and muscular endurance. The most well-rounded athletes get the best scores on this WoD. 

Upper Body Strength

Kipping pull-ups and kettlebell swings are largely full-body movements, but they do tax your upper body the most. After Helen, expect fatigue in your biceps, shoulders, traps, lats, and upper back. 

Step-by-Step Instructions

Want your best Helen time yet (or just want to crush it on your first attempt)? Follow these tips and step-by-step instructions.

Running Tips

Depending on your strengths and weaknesses, the 400-meter run at the beginning of each round can either seriously help or hurt you. If you’re stronger than you are fast (or conditioned), use the run as an active rest period. That means you should run hard enough that your heart rate elevates, but not so hard that you can’t transition right to the kettlebell swings when you finish. 

If you’re a great runner—especially if you’re much better at running than the other two movements in Helen—use the run to push yourself. If you aren’t great at pull-ups or kettlebell swings, the 400-meter run is your chance to get ahead. 

How To Do Kettlebell Swings

The kettlebell swing involves lifting a kettlebell weight from the floor to the overhead position in one smooth, sweeping motion. Here’s how to do it. 

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart; the kettlebell should be in between your feet, slightly in front of your body. Bend over to grip the kettlebell with both hands. Palms should face your body and your spine should remain in a neutral position. 
  2. Brace your core and maintain “active shoulders” before starting the exercise. Having active shoulders means you keep your lats engaged, drawing the shoulder blades back and down. Keep your hips right underneath your shoulders at the top of the movement. 
  3. Lift the kettlebell off of the ground and allow it to swing slightly backward between your legs. Your knees will bend slightly: Think of it as going into a quarter-squat. Keep your spine neutral and shoulders active!
  4. Drive your hips forward until they’re fully extended — a helpful cue to remember is to squeeze your glutes. Don’t use your arms yet; the kettlebell shouldn’t travel higher than your shoulders. 
  5. Once your hips are fully extended, use that momentum and your upper body strength to pull the kettlebell overhead. You should reach full extension with locked-out elbows and a tight core (don’t hyperextend your back). 
  6. Return the kettlebell to the starting position in a controlled manner. Do not drop the kettlebell from overhead. 

How To Do Kipping Pull-Ups

Kipping pull-ups are a highly technical movement unique to CrossFit, though the kip originates from gymnastics. The kip is a full-body movement that athletes use to create momentum, which allows them to either A) do more reps, or B) propel themselves in ways they wouldn’t be able to without extra momentum. 

The kipping pull-up is more about coordination and timing than it is about strength: You must know how to move your body through a large range of motion while suspended in the air. Here’s how to do a kipping pull-up:

  1. Set up: From underneath the pull-up bar, jump up and grip the bar. Your hands should be outside of your shoulders, with your arms creating a “V.” 
  2. Initiate the kip: Begin with your body in a tight, “hollow” position and push your arms down and away on the bar. Think of this movement like a straight-arm lat pulldown on a cable machine. Keep your hips open and your lats and core tight. 
  3. Move into the arch: At the top of the hollow position, your body will start to come back to the starting position. Push your body past this position by extending your back and shoulders. In a proper arch, your head will be in front of the bar and your legs and feet will be behind the bar. 
  4. Complete the kip: Once you reach the arch position, push down and away once again, but this time you’ll forcefully drive your hips upwards (much like in a glute bridge on the floor) and use that momentum to pull your body up to the bar. 
  5. At this point, you should be close to achieving the pull-up without having bent your elbows yet. Do that now: Use your upper body strength to get your chin over the bar. Your elbows should point toward the floor and your lats should be tight.
  6. To begin another pull-up, descend by pushing your body away from the bar back into the hollow position, then follow the steps again. 

Common Mistakes

Every workout presents opportunities for mistakes, but also the opportunity to learn from them. Whether you’ve committed these mistakes before or haven’t tried Helen yet, keep these tips in mind during your next attempt. 

Going too fast on the run

This may seem counterintuitive, but you shouldn’t go all-out on the 400-meter run. A key component of a good Helen score is quick transitions; that is, you should be able to start the kettlebell swings just three to five seconds after you finish the run. Push the pace, but be wary: If you run too hard, you might risk wasting 30 seconds to recover before beginning the swings. 

However, if you’re a proficient runner, you may be able to make this run faster than most. It all comes down to strengths and weaknesses, but many CrossFitters tend to be stronger than they are conditioned, and they’re better off reserving their efforts for the strength-based portions.

Breaking up the reps too much

The Helen WoD is intended to be quick—a good score for intermediate athletes is just 11 to 14 minutes. If your run takes, say, 2 minutes each time, you’re left with just 5 to 8 minutes to complete all of the kettlebell swings and pull-ups. 

You should be able to do each round of kettlebell swings in two sets and each round of pull-ups in one or two sets. To do so, you might need to scale (see Modifications and Variations below).

Kettlebell Swing Mistakes

A challenging lift, the kettlebell swing can cause injury if not done properly. Here are mistakes to avoid:

  • Using the back instead of the legs: You should always bend your knees slightly when doing a kettlebell swing. Doing so allows you to descend into a quarter-squat and use your legs to drive the kettlebell up. If you don’t use your legs, your back muscles will compensate, which can lead to soreness or even injury.
  • Not extending fully overhead: In Helen, you’ll do American-style kettlebell swings, which (as opposed to Russian-style) involve bringing the kettlebell overhead. In a good overhead position, your elbows will lockout and your core will stay tight.
  • Letting the kettlebell drag you down: You should use a kettlebell weight that allows you to finish the swing in a controlled manner. If the kettlebell is too heavy, it’ll drag you down and lead to form mistakes, like using your back muscles instead of your legs.

Pull-Up Mistakes

The kipping pull-up is a unique skill. Avoiding these mistakes can help you avoid injury and achieve a better time.

Not using the full range of motion on the kip: There’s no sense in kipping if you don’t use the skill to its full potential. Your kip should involve a big hollow and a sweeping arch (like in wheel pose in yoga), so you can use momentum and the force of your hips to drive your body up to the bar. 

“Suicide grip”: When doing pull-ups, you should wrap your thumb around the bar. A “suicide grip” means your thumb rests on top of the bar with the rest of your fingers, rather than wrapping around it. This can lead to grip fatigue early, which can slow your pull-ups at best and lead to you slipping from the bar at worst. 

Modifications and Variations

Like all CrossFit workouts, Helen can be scaled to any fitness level. Here are a few ways to modify this Girls WoD.

The Run

Scale the distance: 400 meters may seem like too far of a distance for beginner athletes. In that case, scale the distance to 200 meters for each round. 

Scale the movement: This should be done for people with injuries only. If you can’t run because of an injury, you can either row on the indoor rower or erg (500-meter row = 400-meter run) or cycle on the Airdyne bike (half-mile bike = 400-meter run).

Kettlebell Swings

Scale the weight: You should be able to do all of your kettlebell swings in no more than two sets, but ideally unbroken (one set). If you can’t do 11 swings, pause, and do 10 more swings, choose a lighter kettlebell. The prescribed weight for Helen is 24kg (53 pounds) for men and 16kg (35 pounds) for women. 

Russian kettlebell swings: If an injury prevents you from extending your arms overhead, you can do Russian-style kettlebell swings, which involve bringing the kettlebell to shoulder height. Your arms should be extended straight out in front of you in this version.

Pull-Ups

Strict pull-ups: Most people won’t choose this scaling option because it’s actually more difficult than kipping pull-ups. However, if you don’t have the kip down, but you’re strong enough to complete 36 total strict pull-ups, you can opt for this.

Ring rows: Ring rows are just like TRX rows, but performed on gymnastics rings. To make them harder, keep your body as horizontal as possible. To make them easier, bring your body to a more vertical position. 

Jumping pull-ups: This is a great option for newer athletes who don’t have much (or any) experience with pull-ups. Place a box or stool underneath the bar where you want to do your pull-ups. Stand on the box and grip the bar. Lower your body until your arms are fully extended, and then jump to pull yourself to the bar. 

Kipping pull-ups with a band: This modification should be reserved for athletes who can kip, but aren’t quite strong enough to pull their body all the way to the bar. A resistance band offsets the athlete’s weight, allowing them to practice the kip and full range of motion.

Beginner Helen

Considering the various scaling, a beginner version of Helen might look like this: 

  • 200-meter run
  • 15 kettlebell swings
  • 9 jumping pull-ups

Safety and Precautions

Before starting any workout, you should take certain precautions. Consider these before attempting Helen.

Wear the right shoes

During Helen, you’ll run nearly 1 mile (three 400-meter intervals). For some people, that’s not enough to warrant running shoes, but for others—especially athletes with prior injuries of the ankle, leg, or hip—it is. The important thing is that you’re comfortable for the entirety of the workout. If that means wearing running shoes instead of CrossFit trainers, do so. 

Wear grips or gloves

Protect your hands! Kipping pull-ups are notorious for making CrossFit athletes “rip”—a blister or callus builds up and then tears, exposing tender new skin underneath. Ripping usually results in a searing pain or burn-like sensation. To avoid this, wear grips or gloves designed for CrossFit or gymnastics. 

Warm Up 

You should always warm up before exercising, completing both a general warm-up and a specific warm-up. Your general warm-up should include some form of light cardio exercise, like jogging or cycling, as well as dynamic stretching. Your specific warm-up for Helen should include light kettlebell swings, kip swings, and other movements that will prepare your body for the workout. 

Eat and Hydrate Beforehand

You don’t want to start a Girls WoD on an empty stomach. Hydrate throughout the day and fuel up with healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and protein. If you’re doing Helen first thing in the morning, eat a small but mighty breakfast, like a banana with almond butter. 

Cool Down Afterward

After finishing Helen, chances are you’ll join other athletes in heaps on the floor—if you put in the right amount of effort for a Girls WoD, that is. Once you’ve recovered enough to move, make sure you shake out all that lactic acid build-up. Round out the day’s distance with a 400-meter slow jog or walk, followed by foam rolling and static stretching. Focus on your quads, hip flexors, shoulders, and upper back.

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